Changing Channels: Journalism education in Armenia

International Journalist’s Network –
Aug. 25, 2006

Changing Channels: Journalism education in Armenia
Region :None
Country :Armenia
Topic :Basic Journalism

25/08/2006

Professor Lazarian works with his students in the school’s computer
room.
If universities move with glacial swiftness, then you might call
Professor Aram Lazarian the man who melts glaciers. In little more
than a year, he has persuaded Yerevan State University in Armenia to
adopt an entirely new approach to teaching journalism.

Journalism education at most universities in post-Soviet states has
not changed much since the fall of the Soviet Union. Curricula are
theoretically and historically based.

Margie Freaney, a former Knight Fellow in Slovakia and the founding
academic director of the Caucasus School of Journalism in Tbilisi,
Georgia says, "Few [university] instructors have any practical
experience themselves as journalists."

Typically, students don’t write and report or shoot and edit. They
simply listen to lectures, read, discuss and regurgitate. As a
result, says Freaney, "Students graduate with no useful professional
skills."

Aram Lazarian has dedicated himself to changing that.

Lazarian is a product of Yerevan State University, having gotten his
undergraduate and doctorate degrees there. But he’s traveled
extensively, and what he saw at western universities inspired him:
students writing stories, shooting video cameras, designing web
pages. When he saw colleges with their own radio and television
stations where students produced live newscasts, he instantly
recognized that journalism is a profession one learns by doing.

"It became one of my personal goals," says Lazarian, "to make a
drastic change [in the way we teach journalism]."

With funding from the International Center for Journalists and USAID,
along with approval from a dean who recognized the benefits of a
hands-on curriculum, Lazarian launched a journalism master’s
program. He adopted the model developed by Margie Freaney at the
Caucasus School. Instead of taking multiple classes, students in
Lazarian’s master’s program focus on specific topics for days or
weeks at a time.

The pilot program consists of six woman graduate students. All had
completed their undergraduate degrees at Yerevan State. And, all were
accustomed to the standard, hands-off curriculum. They were used to
90-minute classes, not daylong and weeklong projects where the
instructor gives immediate, continuous feedback.

Talk about academic culture shock.
The journalism school students used to study in this classroom.
Universities are slow and deliberative bodies. Adding or changing a
single course takes multiple levels of academic approval. Here was a
professor pushing for instant change who understood both the
possibility and enormity of the challenge.

As Lazarian says, these six students "became very quickly responsive
to these new methods." Instead of talking, they were doing.
Instead of writing papers, they were writing news stories. Instead
of reading about photography, they were shooting the camera. All six
give the program high marks.

"In the other [classes], we only speak about these things, but here
we go about doing everything by ourselves," says graduate student
Hasmik Lazarian (no relation to Prof. Lazarian).

Now the students enjoy this computer room to complete their projects.

And they can do it themselves for three reasons: small class size,
the necessary equipment, and qualified instructors. All instructors
recruited by Lazarian for the pilot year have extensive professional
experience, such as former NPR reporter Kelly McEvers and former
Knight Fellows Skip Isaacs, Margie Freaney and Tim Spence.

At Yerevan State University, the typical classroom has no computer,
no Internet connection, no video projector: only a blackboard and
chalk. Lazarian’s classroom is wired. Each student has an
internet-connected computer loaded with software.

"I don’t have to go to a computer room and wait," says Sara Khojoyan,
"I can do my work when I come to class."

Software provides the technological adjectives and adverbs essential
to today’s multimedia journalists. From Photoshop to Dreamweaver to
Adobe Premier, the students at Yerevan State University are learning
not only how to report but also how to design and deliver stories
across multiple platforms.

"For the first time in my life, I can do it," says Varduhi Azkaryan,
"I learned more than I imagined, and I am very happy."

Hasmik Lazarian is more than happy; she knows she’s developing
skills critical to future employment. Says Mkrtchayn, "Without this
equipment, we can’t work. Because it’s impossible to speak about
something – to imagine how to do it -and not to do it by your own
hands."

The bottom line for journalism education, however, is not whether
students are becoming technologically proficient but rather if the
program is producing better reporters.

Students like Siranouish Gevorgyan recognize that. Says Gevorgvan,
"I believe journalists can change things in this country."

"The market demands professionally trained journalists" says
Lazarian. "The ultimate goal of our program is to improve
professional journalism education in Armenia."

And he is certainly doing that.
Margie Freaney, who has trained journalists throughout the region and
taught the business-reporting component of this year’s pilot masters
program, says positive results are "already evident."

Freaney says, "The six students already have far superior skills as
journalists than their peers who have not had the advantage of a
rigorous professional program."

Thanks to Professor Lazarian, they are learning journalism by doing
journalism.

Professor Karl Idsvoog is a professor at Kent State University. He
taught the broadcast portion of Lazarian’s master’s program in June
2006.

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